One day, my son came home with a booklet titled, “I’m Safe! In New York City.” On the cover, anthropomorphic animals sauntered happily across a cartoon crosswalk, and it was emblazoned with the Vision Zero logo, as well as the logos of the New York City Department of Transportation, the New York Police Department, and the Taxi and Limousine Commission.
I flipped through it. On page four, a little tiger boy beamed at me from the saddle of a bicycle. “This bike rider isn’t ready yet,” read the words above his head. “What does he need?”
At the bottom of the page were four choices: a helmet, a banana, a doll, and a smartphone.
While the correct answer was obvious (the banana — otherwise you’re gonna bonk), the really correct answer wasn’t even an option: the understanding that these are his streets, too.
As more people ride bikes in New York City, it’s plain to see how far we’ve come. But the challenge of riding with a child shows just how far we still have to go.
Sure, it’s easy to find a place for a kid to practice on a balance bike or a bike with training wheels, but what happens when they outgrow the playground? Children are permitted to ride on the sidewalk, but as an adult, you’re not allowed to ride on the sidewalk with them. Depending on where you live, your child may not be ready to accompany you on the street, either.
How, then, are we supposed to mint the cyclists of tomorrow? Are they supposed to leap fully formed from the head of Zeus? Are they supposed to ride up and down the sidewalk in front of their building until they hit puberty? How does a child learn that cycling is a healthy and normal form of transportation when actually doing it with their parents is nearly impossible?
Of course, this problem isn’t limited to bikes. In much of New York City, the simple act of walking with a child is fraught with danger. Even the calmest parent has nearly dislodged a little limb from its socket after a willful child attempted to ford the Automotive River of Death alone.
Sure, kids need to learn how to be careful. But, what does it say about our city when merely stepping off the curb is like falling into the gorilla enclosure?
What it says is that, as a city, we are failing our children, and we’re doing it in two ways. First, we’re failing to keep them safe. Second, we’re teaching them that danger is normal, and that it’s up to them to adapt to it or die.
As a parent, I’ve seen my share of city-issued child-oriented Vision Zero propaganda. While it never fails to remind them to wear their helmets, there’s nary a mention of the safer city towards which we’re ostensibly moving, nor of the role they can play in helping to create it.
This is a shame, because the concept of creating a better world is one that kids are perfectly capable of understanding. For example, pollution is a topic that children encounter early on, in books, in school, and even in Pixar movies. I wager there isn’t a parent reading this who hasn’t been grilled on the subject of energy consumption and recycling by their little budding greenie. Frankly, they can be real pains in the butt about it, which is why Daddy has to squander the wattage to blend that frozen margarita in the first place.
Why don’t we encourage similar idealism from kids when it comes to safer streets? Maybe, it’s because we’re not fully committed to it.
In announcing its target to reduce greenhouse emissions 7% by 2035, City Hall crowed that it would be “equivalent to taking 900,000 cars off the road.” At the same time, Mayor Bill de Blasio refuses to back congestion pricing, which might actually help take some cars off the road, and bolster the transit system, and free up some of the streetscape for the next generation.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t teach kids the reality of now, which is that the streets are awash with dangerous, distracted drivers. They need to understand this to stay alive. But we also have to teach kids why that’s wrong, or else it’s never going to change.
Sure, we’ve got “Cross This Way,” the hip-hop P.S.A. that teaches kids to stop at the corner, even when they’ve got the right of way. We’ve even got Safety City, the “simulated New York City street to teach children about traffic safety through hands-on experience.”
But we need a Streetopia City, too, to show kids what a city street can, and should, be. Children need to understand they have a rightful place in this city, and that this deadly state of affairs is not an immutable inevitability.
As for that “I’m Safe!” booklet, on closer inspection it turned out to be from a company called Child Safety Solutions, Inc., in Rockland, Maine, that offers organizations the option to order various safety-themed coloring books “complete with your logo and contact information on the front and back covers.” It was a generic, one-size-fits-all lesson, with some good advice, but the best lesson it had to offer was the importance of recycling it.
But the kid already knows that.